Supreme Court will decide if women can join together to fight sexual harassment at work

by Celine McNicholas, Labor Counsel, Economic Policy Institute and Sharon Block, Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School

After the news that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had been sexually harassing and assaulting women in the movie industry for decades, millions of women shared their stories with the hashtag #metoo. The social media campaign shined a light on a fact that to many women: sexual harassment is a daily fact of life in the workplace. Many American corporations foster—or at least tolerate—widespread, egregious sexual harassment of their workers, even all these years after U.S. law first recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. As the Supreme Court considers the first case of its term, National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil, we hope they have read the stories about Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly and other men, as well as the millions of people who spoke up online.

Just last week, a poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that 48 percent of currently employed women in this country say that they have personally experienced an unwelcome sexual advance or verbal or physical harassment at work. And, while many corporations have announced zero-tolerance policies for harassment, employers are increasingly preventing workers who experience sexual harassment to join together to seek justice

Today, 24.7 million American workers have been forced to sign contracts that, as a condition of employment, require them to waive their rights to joining a class action lawsuit to address sexual harassment and other workplace disputes—instead these workers must act alone to resolve what is often systemic violations of employment protections. The National Labor Relations Board has determined that these arbitration agreements violate workers’ right under the National Labor Relations Act to join together for “mutual aid and protection.” Business interests—and the Trump administration—disagree. In Murphy Oil, the Supreme Court will decide whether workers have the right to come together to protect themselves from workplace issues like sexual harassment. The case could not be more relevant, or present the Justices with two more starkly divergent options.

If the Justices side with Trump and big corporations, women across America will be forced to go it alone when they are victimized and harassed. This means that a woman whose boss just threatened to fire her if she refuses to perform sexual favors (1) has to find a lawyer on her own, (2) is prevented from bolstering her credibility by involving coworkers who have endured the same treatment, and (3) has to subject herself to sole scrutiny of the action. As recent revelations demonstrate, in many workplaces this is not a one-off experience, but is instead a systemic problem. Prohibiting women and men from collectively addressing harassment and forcing them to go it alone creates an obstacle to pushing for systemic change, which means that the problem is likely to continue.

If the Justices side with the NLRB and the working people they represent, that woman can seek the support of her coworkers, making it easier to find a lawyer to take the case and present the pattern that gives an accurate picture of the workplace. From Rosa Parks to Lily Ledbetter to the brave women in the #metoo campaign, women have recognized the power of community to effect real change. The argument in Murphy Oil could not present a more stark choice for the Justices—a choice between a future where corporations can run roughshod over the rights of workers or where women and men can effectively seek justice.

Supreme Court should uphold working people’s fundamental rights in Murphy Oil


*This piece originally appeared on the EPI blog.

by Celine McNicholas, Labor Counsel, Economic Policy Institute

Today, EPI released a new paper by Cornell professor Alexander J.S. Colvin, which shows that more than half of all private sector non-union workers are currently subject to mandatory arbitration agreements—denying them access to the court system to resolve workplace disputes. Colvin also found that 41 percent of employees subject to mandatory arbitration also have waived their right to pursue work-related claims on a collective or class basis. Next week, the Supreme Court will consider whether arbitration agreements that include class and collective action waivers of all work-related claims are prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The Court is scheduled to hear argument in National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA (along with two other cases Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris and Epic Systems v. Lewis) on October 2.

The NLRA guarantees workers the right to stand together for “mutual aid and protection” when seeking to improve their wages and working conditions. Employer interference with this right is prohibited. However, as Colvin’s report shows, employers are increasingly requiring workers to sign arbitration agreements that force them to waive their rights to collective actions and instead handle all workplace disputes as individuals. In practice, that means that even if many workers faced the same type of dispute at work, each individual employee must hire their own lawyer, and must resolve their disputes out of court, behind closed doors, with only their employer and a private arbitrator.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) first reviewed arbitration agreements with class and collective action waivers in D.R. Horton, Inc. (357 NLRB No. 184 (2012)) and found that these forced arbitration agreements interfere with workers’ right to engage in concerted activity for their mutual aid and protection, in violation of the NLRA. Corporate interests and the Trump administration—in a stark departure from the position taken by the Obama administration Department of Justice—are fighting the NLRB. They are focusing their argument on the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements, subject to contract defenses. However, the Supreme Court has never enforced an arbitration agreement that violates another federal statute—as the arbitration agreements here violate the NLRA by requiring workers waive their fundamental right to join together to address workplace disputes. Still, that is what corporate interests arguing against the NLRB are asking the Court to do in this case. If they succeed, they will, as the NLRB argues in its brief, be using “private contracts to eviscerate the public rights Congress protected in the NLRA.”

Murphy Oil is a significant case for working people. If the Court sides with the Trump administration, workers could be required to waive our right to pursue workplace disputes on a collective or class basis, and instead we will be forced to individually arbitrate work-related claims. This is troubling, considering that employees who arbitrate grievances against their employer are much less likely to win than workers who file in federal court. Employees in arbitration win only about a fifth of the time (21.4 percent), whereas they win more than a third (36.4 percent) of the time in federal courtsAnd, when workers do prevail in arbitration, they are awarded far less in damages.

Workers depend on collective and class actions to enforce many workplace rights. Employment class actions have helped to combat race and sex discrimination and are fundamental to the enforcement of wage and hour standards. Without the ability to aggregate claims, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for workers to find legal representation in these matters. This is particularly true for low-wage workers, whose cases are unlikely to involve large enough awards to attract attorneys to invest time in the case. That is the power of class and collective action suits: they let workers pool their claims, making it possible for an attorney to earn enough to make the case worth pursuing. And with class and collective action waivers in arbitration agreements, the arbitration process can only compensate an individual worker—rather than remedy systemic labor and employment violations experienced by many workers. Class and collective actions also help to identify and redress systemic violations of labor and employment protection. Court filings, unlike arbitration procedures, are public. Class action suits have served to draw attention to employer practices that violate worker protections and help the officials tasked with enforcing these laws develop targeted enforcement strategies that benefit all workers. Public awareness of these practices is critical to making sure we have policies that adequately protect workers.

In 1935, Congress recognized the importance of giving workers a collective voice in the workplace when it enacted the NLRA. The Supreme Court has the opportunity to uphold this fundamental right in Murphy Oil. If, however, the Court sides with corporate interests and the Trump administration, workers will likely be forced to sign away the long-held right to join together with their coworkers to address workplace disputes.